A few days to go before Audible releases David Copperfield on February 9 – rumored to be about 30 hours of narration by Richard Armitage.
It may take me 30 days to get through it, if my experience with The Chimes is any measure. Count me among the group who are not thrilled about listening to Charles Dickens. See here and here. See also some of my fellow bloggers, and their commenters, who have weighed in on the subject. Me and Richard Armitage; Preoccupied with Armitage.
I’ve wracked my memory to try and remember exactly which Dickens novels I’ve actually read, and which I just know from film. I know that I read Great Expectations, and liked it – or anyway, was pulled in by Pip’s adventures. Indelible is my memory of Pip’s first meeting with the jilted Miss Haversham, still in her unused wedding dress, decades after she’d been left at the alter – and yet, after re-reading the chapter today, I realized that the true image I have is from one of the various film versions, in which we see, not only Miss Haversham, but the remains of what would have been the wedding breakfast including a rotted wedding cake wrapped in cobwebs. Maybe it was this one:
I also know that I read A Tale of Two Cities – that one, in school, for sure.
I recently listened to some lectures on You Tube that were presented for the Dickens bicentenary in 2012. One lecturer ( who was actually a Shakespearean) mentioned that, as a professor, she often started her classes on Dickens by asking how many students were familiar with his works. One by one she went through the titles, and, as she reported, for almost all the well known works, many hands went up. But when she asked how many had actually read Dickens, hardly any students had actually read any of the works – they’d all seen the movies or the BBC enactments.
That could have been me. I do think I read David Copperfield – on my own, and not through school, but I can no longer be certain. Author Virginia Woolf knew the problem. She thought that,
There is perhaps no person living who can remember reading David Copperfield for the first time. Like Robinson Crusoe and Grimm’s Fairy Tales and the Waverley Novels, Pickwick and David Copperfield are not books, but stories communicated by word of mouth in those tender years
when fact and fiction merge, and thus belong to the memories and myths of life, and not to its aesthetic experience.
I know I never read Oliver Twist or Bleak House. I couldn’t get through the BBC version of Little Dorrit, even with Matthew MacFayden and a surprise appearance by Andy Serkis.
I’ve said often enough, here and elsewhere, that one need not like a book ( or film) to have something valuable to say about it, or to engage in lively discussion. Sometimes the backstory is enough.
And so I found with Dickens, as I struggled to find something useful to post here.
Dickens has been described as a rock star of his time. Not only were his serialized chapter books eagerly looked forward to on both sides of the Atlantic, in the same way that some viewers couldn’t wait for the next episode, of say, Hannibal, or Game of Thrones – but Dickens was also an astute and effective promoter of his own work.
Some similarities between how Charles Dickens marketed himself, and how film and TV producers do the same today, are pretty remarkable. Dickens, for example, often wrote about his writing – he kept his audience engaged and on edge for the next chapter. Dickens often scheduled public readings of portions of his work as well as giving talks on what he was doing. These events sold out immediately. Author Henry James, who first loved, then despised Dickens, complained to his brother William,
Dickens has arrived for his readings. It is impossible to get tickets. At 7 o’clock A.M. on the first day of the sale there were two or three hundred at the office, and at 9, when I strolled up, nearly a thousand. So I don’t expect to hear him.
Reminds me a little of The Hobbit panels at ComicCon or The Hobbit Fan Event.
In later years, Dickens continued to hold readings of his works, sometimes drawing crowds of as many as 3,600 listeners, with no microphones or other amplification. Often he revised some of his best known passages to give them better dramatic effect, and rehearsed long hours in order to give the best reading he could.
Author, Jane Smiley, an avid fan of Dickens, in her short critical biography of his work, thought that Dickens was,
a true celebrity (maybe the first true celebrity in the modern sense)
and, as the reviewer of Smiley’s work in The Atlantic Monthly posited,
[He was] the first writer, therefore, to feel the intense pressure of being simultaneously an artist and an object of unremitting public interest and adulation.
Celebrity is not the same thing as fame. There were English writers before Dickens who were famous in their own lifetimes—Samuel Richardson, Dr. Johnson, Lord Byron, for example. But they did not cultivate or exploit their fame, and it didn’t take over their entire lives, as celebrity always threatens to do. Celebrity entails a certain collaboration and complicity on the part of the subject. It can bring great material rewards and personal satisfactions, but at a cost: the transformation of one’s “self” into a kind of commodity. It requires conditions that did not exist before the Industrial Revolution hit its stride: fast and flexible means of production, transportation, and communication, which circulate the work widely and bring the author into actual or virtual contact with his or her audience.
And as both Jane Smiley and The Atlantic reviewer tell us,
[T]he omniscient authorial voice favored by Dickens . . . encouraged their readers to feel that the text they held in their hands was a direct line to a real human being; that the “Charles Dickens” whose name appeared on the title page of the novel was identical with the man who actually wrote the book.
Sure, there is a difference between the public’s view of one writer publishing many works, many of which reflect his experience and time, and one actor who plays many roles, written by others – but the notion of the public believing that they know the private men through the public persona is similar enough.
And then, there’s the fan fiction connection. As I write, on BBC running now, is a 20 part series, Dickensian, in which the screenwriter imagined a boatload of Dickens’ characters, set in Dickensian London and mushed them all together in a story that changes outcomes and, improbably has characters from one novel bumping into and affecting the lives of characters in other novels. Even dead characters have been brought to life. It’s wildly successful.
During Dickens’s own writing life, fans wrote to him or otherwise suggested how they’d like to see the story develop, suggesting changes and alternate plots, some of which he seemed to take to heart, by beefing up the presence of some characters, and redirecting the plot of others, and even changing his anticipated ending in one novel.
There are a few reasons how I’m going to get through David Copperfield without complaining bitterly, and they are all Richard Armitage.
Just from hearing the brief excerpt provided by Audible today, I’m thankful that he’s chosen to use a more or less familiar voice and dialect as DC, who happens to be first person narrator. So, lots of regular Armitage voice to hear. Second, I anticipate marveling at how well he chooses just the right voice and dialect for his other characters and manages to keep them straight. Third, I’m going to remind myself that Richard Armitage probably had great fun finding these voices and executing them.
Fourth – I’m hoping that this Audible book will do exceptionally well, paving the way for something else that I really want to read/hear. Maybe a book Audible is willing to buy the rights to.
I bought it. I wrote about it. I’ll write about it again, – yes, like Barkis – Perry is willing, but to borrow from a Dickens contemporary, Herman Melville, as Bartleby says, I would prefer not to.